Kansas Legislature’s sobering report card: ‘Incomplete but progress is probable’

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The Kansas Capitol

Kansas voters last fall sent smarter, more moderate voices to the Legislature.

In Johnson County, Republican newcomers Patty Markley, Joy Koesten, Tom Cox, Sean Tarwater and Jan Kessinger in the House and Dinah Sykes and John Skubal in the Senate largely have engaged in positive actions this year. So have Democratic House newbies Cindy Holscher, Cindy Neighbor, Brett Parker and Jerry Stogsdill.

As a result, the 2017 session — with just two weeks to go before first adjournment on April 7 — has been full of promise for results that could better serve Kansans. That follows years of disasters on financial and social issues under Gov. Sam Brownback and his ultra-conservative followers.

Patty Markley

Patty Markley

However, the sobering reality is that the report card for this year’s Legislature is woefully incomplete.

Most of the biggest priorities — repealing Brownback’s destructive 2012 income tax cuts and constitutionally funding K-12 schools — remain undone. Others on the list include expanding Medicaid.

UPDATED 6 p.m. Monday: The Senate approved expansion 25-13 in the late afternoon, though a Brownback veto looms.

Want good news? Solid progress is still possible during this session, which could stretch into June. The Legislature needs to:

— Raise taxes to better finance crucial state services, including higher education, as well as public pensions after this fiscal year ends June 30.

The Legislature came tantalizingly close to doing that in February. The House and Senate passed a reasonable bill to hike income taxes and repeal the reckless and unfair tax exemption for LLC owners. But Brownback vetoed it and the Senate could not override it.

John Skubal

John Skubal

At some point, the Legislature must endorse a measure that raises significant new revenues. They need to wipe out a projected deficit of $1.1 billion in the next two years. Then members must gird themselves to overcome the expected Brownback veto.

— Adequately finance public K-12 education.

The state Supreme Court has said Brownback’s block grant approach is unconstitutional, and weeks ago essentially said a new finance formula must be put in place. Last week a House bill was introduced to boost K-12 funding by only $75 million a year, far below what many have said will be required. Work continues Monday on this extremely important venture.

— Balance this fiscal year’s budget.

The state still has to pass a measure to make up for the projected $280 million deficit that exists between now and June 30. Again, that’s largely because of the lack of revenue from income taxes.

Cindy Holscher

Cindy Holscher

That money should not come through any kind of large reductions in state agency budgets. Kansas government already does a poorer job today than it did four years ago serving its nearly 3 million residents. Instead, one-time funds will be sought out, though that’s far from a perfect solution.

— Expand KanCare’s health care coverage to help more than 150,000 extra disabled and low-income residents.

The state has failed to do that for three years while more than 30 other states have expanded their Medicaid programs. Kansas has left more than $1 billion in funding on the table that could have been used for better health care.

But with the new Legislature in charge in 2017, the House somewhat surprisingly approved an expansion plan as did a Senate committee last week. The full Senate tentatively approved that idea Monday afternoon. However, if Brownback vetoes the measure as expected, it won’t get done without override votes in the House and Senate.

Other priorities are still pending. For instance, it would be great for the Legislature to fully repeal the law that would allow guns to be freely carried on college campuses starting July 1.

But financial concerns are the most important ones confronting the Legislature. The lawmakers must make the right decisions to start to repair the damage inflicted by Brownback’s regime since 2011.

One more sobering thought: It could take billions of dollars in new revenue and several years to right this Kansas ship.

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